Monday, August 18, 2008

Anatema: Choosing Life in Kosovo

Directed by Agim Sopi
Vanguard Cinema

The horrors committed by the Serbian former Communists and their Bosnian Serb allies were horrendous, and the Free World’s feckless response was a scandal, which has yet to be adequately captured on film. The Hunting Party had some intriguing moments, but was undercut by a weak lead performance and displayed more interest in criticizing NATO for a lack of zealousness pursuing war criminals than dramatizing the actual crimes. Though not perfect, writer-director Agim Sopi’s Anatema (trailer here), now available on DVD, serves as a valuable corrective, shining a light on Serbian war crimes, in this case committed in Kosovo.

Sopi’s original intention was to document war crimes occurring in Kosovo with a documentary, but when the Serbian army confiscated his film, he was forced to shift his efforts to a narrative film. One of the unsettling aspects of Anatema is that it looks like its fictional crimes could have been filmed at the sights of previous real life atrocities. Those acts of evil dominate the first part of the film, as David Schwartz, an American journalist, and Ema Berisha, his Kosovar translator, attempt to save a little girl shot in the stomach by Serbian forces, but are prevented by Serbian officers making absurdist sport of the situation. After surviving the subsequent brutality of the Serbs, Schwartz broadcasts his report, only to be recalled by his network due to the impending NATO intervention. He and his field producer want to take Berisha with them, but she insists on returning to her home in Pristine.

Despite the temporary joy of a reunion with her fiancé, leading to their long postponed wedding, Pristine quickly turns into a nightmare. The Serbian forces occupy the city, deliberating using organized rape as a tool of terror and pacification, before expelling the survivors to Albania. On her return to Kosovo, Berisha is rejected by her husband and spurned by most of her friends. Nobody wants her to keep her baby (which for all she knows could be the product of her wedding night). The Kosovars do not want her to keep the presumed product of Serbian war crimes and issue of Serbian blood. The Serbs do not want such babies to survive as evidence of their crimes. Berisha is determined not to punish Ana, her unborn daughter, for the crimes of others. Indeed, Anatema (Ana + Ema) may well be the most pro-life film ever made.

Berisha is forced to temporarily give up Ana for adoption, but when she returns to claim her, the agency is gone. She tracks Ana to a former monastery appropriated by the old Communists and noveau mobsters trafficking in babies, both for profit and disposing of war crimes evidence.

Anatema is at heart a mother’s story and as such is wholly dependent on its lead actress. Unlike Richard Gere in Hunting Party, Lumnie Sopi is terrific as Ema. Unfortunately, many of the supporting actors are considerably weaker, although Blerim Gjoci is likeably credible as the sympathetic Kosovar Commander Shpati. Director Sopi truly takes the audience to occupied Kosovo, rightly forcing viewers to confront the reality of the war crimes committed there. However, he can be a bit heavy-handed, as when he shows a stampeding crowd trampling a baby’s doll. Still, his portrayals of Serbian brutality and the cluelessness of the international policing forces are infuriatingly effective, all of which is ultimately held together by an impressive lead performance.